Diet or diabetes: You decide.
An estimated 34 million people in the U.S. — or just over 1 in 10 — have diabetes. Diet is a crucial tool for managing the disease, and weight loss can help people who are overweight prevent Type 2 diabetes. Prevention is particularly important when you consider that diabetes brings complications such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, plus increased risk for heart attack and stroke, kidney disease and blindness.
Consider one of the U.S. News 2021 Best Diabetes Diets, as evaluated by nutrition experts:
No. 1 (tie) The Flexitarian Diet
The Flexitarian Diet marries flexibility with a vegetarian eating plan — eat like a vegetarian most of the time, but when the urge for a double cheeseburger hits, go for it. Cutting back on meat will likely help you lose weight, which means you stand a better chance of staving off diabetes. Plus, vegetarianism is linked to a lower diabetes risk, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“The amount of information and guidance in the Flexitarian diet is just enough to make the dieter feel informed without feeling restricted,” a U.S. News reviewer says. “Focusing on a plant-based diet has been shown in research to be beneficial for your heart and brain and can help reduce the risk of diabetes and certain cancers.”
No. 1 (tie) Mediterranean Diet
Fruits, veggies, whole grains. Fish and seafood. Oh yeah, and wine. The Mediterranean diet is a healthy all-around choice — and a clear winner when it comes to diabetes management and prevention. One study, for example, found that about 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease could be prevented by adopting the approach. Another study suggests the Mediterranean diet can help prevent diabetes, since the short-chain fatty acids (a product of fiber fermentation in the gut) the diet promotes are linked to a decreased risk of the disease. As one expert said, “Overall, this is the best diet for long-term health and disease prevention.”
No. 3 (tie) DASH Diet
The DASH diet — Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension — was designed to curb high blood pressure, but chances are, it can help prevent and manage diabetes, too. It’s generally viewed as an ideal eating pattern for both, and it echoes dietary advice touted by the American Diabetes Association. One large 2017 study even linked diets that closely mirror DASH and other healthy eating patterns with an 18% reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes. Better yet, “because it uses regular food and does not depend on supplements or smoothies, it is relatively easy to incorporate into a dietary plan and it provides satiety,” one U.S. News panelist said.
No. 3 (tie) Mayo Clinic Diet
The Mayo Clinic Diet aims to recalibrate eating habits and promote weight loss. It emphasizes the right foods (fruits, veggies and whole grains), discourages the wrong ones and mandates physical activity — all good standards for diabetes prevention. The guidelines mirror those of the American Diabetes Association, and our expert panelists said the plan is better than most other approaches for those worried about diabetes.
No. 3 (tie) Vegan Diet
Going vegan will likely help you lose weight and fend off chronic diseases like diabetes. Research suggests the approach can lower A1C levels, and a small pilot study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes in 2015 suggests it can help ease diabetes-related nerve pain. In late 2016, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics released a position statement declaring vegetarian diets — including vegan ones — to be healthy, nutritionally adequate and potentially able to prevent and treat diseases, including Type 2 diabetes.
A U.S. News reviewer concurs: “If followed in a healthy way, (a vegan) diet has a lot of potential for treating and managing diabetes and for preventing heart disease.”
No. 6 Jenny Craig
Jenny Craig offers a lower-carb program for people with Type 2 diabetes. U.S. News panelists suspect the Jenny Craig for Type 2 program can work for diabetes care and applaud its support component, but caution that the cost and packaged foods approach aren’t ideal long term. “The lack of preparation (doesn’t teach) people to eat a healthy diet for the rest of their lives,” one expert said.
No. 7 (tie) The Engine 2 Diet
Experts were impressed with the Engine 2 Diet, a low-fat, vegan plan designed to prevent and perhaps reverse diseases like diabetes caused by the so-called standard American diet. It will almost certainly help you lose weight, which can stave off Type 2 diabetes. Plus, one study found that those on a similar diet were able to ease up on their diabetes medications and lower their A1C hemoglobin levels.
But, as with any restrictive plan, careful planning to consume the right amount of various nutrients is key. “Following this diet alone will not reverse diabetes; you’d still have to pay attention to carbohydrate intake,” one reviewer said.
No. 7 (tie) MIND Diet
The MIND diet — which blends two all-star plans, the DASH and Mediterranean diets — is designed to prevent Alzheimer’s disease with brain-healthy foods such as leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, beans and whole grains.
While research focuses on brain health, the plan’s parent diets may have diabetes-preventive effects. Just make sure you get moving, too. Exercise is one of the most important aspects of preventing diabetes and other chronic diseases, one expert says, “so it’s unfortunate that an exercise recommendation is not included with this diet plan.”
No. 7 (tie) Ornish Diet
Experts applauded the Ornish Diet as a way to prevent or control diabetes, giving it an impressive rating in this category. The plan’s basic principles of emphasizing whole grains and produce and shunning saturated fat and cholesterol are right in line with American Diabetes Association guidelines. And in one study, Ornish dieters decreased their A1C levels (blood sugar measure) by 0.4 percentage points after a year, which was considered meaningful. “I appreciate that this diet takes a more holistic approach to health, including supporting relationships with others and stress reduction,” one U.S. News panelist said.
No. 7 (tie) Volumetrics
Filling up on fibrous, bulky foods (think raw carrots) over easy-to-overeat foods (like Cheetos) is tied to weight loss — and, quite likely, diabetes prevention and management, experts agreed. Research suggests such low-density diets help prevent insulin resistance — a frequent precursor to Type 2 diabetes.
The Volumetrics diet is flexible, too. “From a behavioral standpoint, it is one of the most reasonable plans to follow over the long term because it is not overly restrictive and allows people to make ‘better’ choices rather than trying to follow strict guidelines,” one U.S. News panelist said.
No. 7 (tie) WW (Weight Watchers)
Want to eat your cake and be able to prevent or manage diabetes, too? WW (Weight Watchers) — which offers specific plans for people with diabetes and prediabetes — allows dieters to strategically indulge using a point system. Still, making mindful choices is important, an expert notes: “Since fruits and vegetables are zero points, those with prediabetes and diabetes may be adversely affected by this if they overindulge in these foods.”
One yearlong randomized controlled trial of 563 American adults with Type 2 diabetes found that nearly twice as many people who followed WW (Weight Watchers) and received counseling from a certified diabetes educator met their A1C level treatment target in comparison to those who received standard diabetes nutrition counseling and education. WW (Weight Watchers) participants were also more than twice as likely to reduce their diabetes medications. The program also led to greater weight loss and more reduced waistlines.
No. 12 (tie) Nutritarian Diet
The Nutritarian diet’s focus on plant foods and limiting of animal proteins is in line with diabetes prevention and management protocols. Research, too, links diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, while diets high in red meat and other animal protein have been linked with higher diabetes prevalence in women. “The Nutritarian diet seems radical,” one expert said, “but it’s really just trying to pack as many of the healthiest foods as possible and minimize those that have been associated with disease.”
No. 12 (tie) Vegetarian Diet
Going vegetarian can help shed pounds and fend off chronic diseases, including diabetes. A meat-free eating plan will likely help you lose weight and keep it off, which can stave off Type 2 diabetes. Research links vegetarianism with a lower diabetes risk, and the American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agree it’s a healthful option.
Best Diets to Prevent and Manage Diabetes
— Flexitarian Diet.
— Mediterranean Diet.
— DASH Diet.
— Mayo Clinic Diet.
— Vegan Diet.
— Jenny Craig.
— Engine 2 Diet.
— MIND Diet.
— Ornish Diet.
— WW (Weight Watchers).
— Nutritarian Diet.
— Vegetarian Diet.
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Update 01/04/21: This story has been updated to reflect the 2021 U.S. News Best Diets rankings.